Tacoma Symphony finalist for music director brings energy

November 11, 2013 

Scott Speck is a best-selling author, a public speaker, a polylinguist and a savvy social media presence. He’s also a conductor respected nationwide for his energy and communication – and he’s arriving in town this week for his audition concert Sunday for the position of music director with the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and a Philip Glass overture.

Speck is the final of four candidates. Over the next month, the orchestra’s selection committee will begin making its decision on who will replace Harvey Felder, who will step down in May after 20 years at the helm of the symphony.

Meanwhile, Speck might have some decisions to make.

In September, the conductor The San Francisco Chronicle described as “magical” and “masterful,” added the directorship of the Chicago Philharmonic to his already hefty list of duties: music director of the Joffrey Ballet (which performs with the Chicago Philharmonic), the West Michigan Symphony and the Mobile Symphony in Alabama, plus a busy guest-conducting schedule elsewhere in the U.S. and in Europe.

A frequent poster on Facebook and Twitter with more than 4,000 followers on the former and 5,000 followers on the latter, Speck also is a writer and speaker, having authored best-selling music guides (“Classical Music for Dummies,” “Opera for Dummies” and “Ballet for Dummies”) and journal articles. The Boston native and Yale graduate was a Fulbright scholar, and is fluent in five languages. He speaks regularly on NPR, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and at TED talks.

Now, the Chicago-based 52-year-old – who The Chicago Examiner recently applauded for “leadership (that) allowed the ensemble to showcase their … beauty and power” – comes to Tacoma. He talked with The News Tribune on the phone about his ideas for creative multimedia, new music and making an orchestra an indispensable part of a community.

Question: Is this your first time in Tacoma?

Answer: Yes, but I’ve been in the Pacific Northwest several times. (It’s) a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The idea of spending more time there really excites me.

Q: With four musical directorships already, can you fit another post into your life?

A: That’s a good question. A music director search is one of those marvelous, ineffable situations like a first date. If there’s enough chemistry and desire on both sides to turn it into a consummated relationship, if you like, you find a way to make it work. For now, I have balance in my life, but in the orchestra world things are always in flux. If I were to be selected, I would make sure I was always available.

Q: Would you relocate? Do you have a family?

A: I’m single. And I would definitely have a residence there. It’s important for me to be a part of the community: to be seen at the supermarket, give speeches about the orchestra, to live close to where I work.

Q: What kind of role do you think a symphony orchestra should have in a community?

A: An orchestra has to be seen as an indispensable community resource. It can’t be seen as a luxury, it can’t be seen as elitist or meant only for a small subset of the population. The Tacoma Symphony has done much better than many symphonies across the country in creating programming that’s appealing to a large number of people.

One of my biggest passions is spreading the good word about classical music, and sharing that it is for everyone. That’s my life’s work. My role would be to be a very active spokesman for the beauty and goodness that classical music can bring to anyone’s life.

Q: How have you achieved this elsewhere?

A: When I first came to my town in Alabama there was almost zero public music education in schools. If someone had talent, they would either have to travel two hours to New Orleans or get on a long waiting list for one of the few teachers in town. We made it priority to get music education front and center. … Now there are literally thousands of children having music lessons every week through the symphony, and getting free tickets to concerts. And if the kids do well, the parents get interested and come to concerts too. The overall attendance has increased, and the appreciation of the orchestra as a community resource.

In Tacoma it may be a different story, but I’m sure there’s a need that can be filled through music.

Q: What would you bring to the TSO if you were chosen as director?

A: Well, I haven’t even heard the orchestra yet – that’s part of going on a date together! But I bring a collaborative sensibility to music making.

Orchestras should play with the same chamber music instincts that a quartet would. On my Fulbright in Berlin, I joined the Berlin Philharmonic chorus, under (Herbert) von Karajan. What I noticed was that individually they were not the best musicians in the world, but collectively they were the best orchestra in the world.

How did they do that? They breathed together, they moved together as if connected by wires, moving like one person.

This also extended to empowering the musicians in decision-making, like choosing a conductor. The enthusiasm of musicians, when channeled, is the most powerful thing in the world. Trying to channel that is my ongoing experiment with orchestras. I’m eager to see what kind of orchestra meets me at the door in Tacoma.

Q: Tell us about the program you’ve chosen, and why it reflects the kind of music you like to do.

A: You need a hook, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 5 is a hook. It’s also a great masterpiece. Then you have a virtuosic but youthful effort by Beethoven (with the Piano Concerto No. 1.)

But I feel every concert should include a palette-cleanser: something new to the audience that’s refreshing and causes you to listen to the rest in a new way. Philip Glass’ Funeral from Akhnaten (arranged by the composer from his 1984 opera about the Egyptian pharaoh) is hypnotic, mesmerizing, tribal; it has the kind of drum rhythm you feel in your gut. It’s one of my favorite Philip Glass works.

When you perform new music, it’s really important that the audience feels they have a better understanding of it by the end. I’ll talk about it and give musical demonstrations so people feel they have a foothold.

Q: What other kinds of programming do you like?

A: The other thing that interests me is how different collaborations and multimedia can be used to enhance an orchestra. I don’t mean overshadow – when you turn the lights down and everyone just watches a video screen then people start to regard the orchestra as just background music.

One of the pieces I like to play is Holst’s Planets, which many orchestras don’t do because it finishes on such a quiet, fading note that people (don’t clap much). It ends quietly with a women’s chorus offstage, fading out. What I’ve done, to emphasize that it’s not petering out but in fact very profound, is that the house and stage lights all slowly fade with the music to pitch black. Then they fade up into a star pattern on the ceiling. People gasp; it’s very exciting.

Q: Tacoma’s Pantages Theater is known for its bad acoustics. How would you meet that challenge?

A: There are several ways. I’d like to explore acoustical shells, though they can be expensive. But the Philadelphia Orchestra is famous for its string sound because for many years they played in a dreadful hall. To compensate, Ormandy and Stokowski cultivated a sound played to the last drop, the notes sustained with lots of vibrato and energy. Then when they played anywhere else it was so lush. So things like that can be done.

Q: Are you writing any other books right now?

A: I think I’ve written everything I know! It might be fun to write about everything I’ve learned about conducting, because I’ve earned it the long way, no shortcuts.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

A: My other huge passion besides music is movies. All through college I didn’t know if I’d be a film director or a conductor. So I’m a huge movie buff. I exercise a lot, and do Bikram hot yoga, lots of cardio.

I love to read, especially on airplanes. … Lately I’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries, “Stoner” by John Williams and “The Poet of Tolstoy Park” by Sonny Brewer, a friend of mine in Alabama. I also love exploring neighborhoods and restaurants. I’m a notoriously bad cook.

And I’m just getting into Northwest history, the beginnings of the Yukon rush.


What: “See Change IV”

Who: Tacoma Symphony with Scott Speck, conductor, and Oksana Ezhokina, piano.

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma.

Tickets: $19, $29, $45, $65, $77.

Also: Pre-concert talk with Speck and Greg Youtz, 1:30 p.m.; post-concert Q&A with Speck in lobby.

Information: 253-591-5894, tacomasymphony.org, broadwaycenter.org.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti @thenewstribune.com

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